Comet Lovejoy surprised a lot of people when it survived a very close encounter with the sun on December 16, 2011. It skimmed through the solar corona where temperatures reach up to two million degrees Fahrenheit, about 140,000 kilometers (87,000 miles) above the sun’s surface. Comet Lovejoy is now racing away from the sun, and it’s putting on a grand predawn show in the sky visible from the Southern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, the comet is not visible from the Northern Hemisphere, so us northerners have to live vicariously through the astrophotographers who have been bringing us stunning images of Comet Lovejoy.
Grahame Kelaher, an Australian astrophotographer, sent this jaw-dropping image of Comet Lovejoy to EarthSky. He took it near Perth on December 22, 2011 using a Canon 7D camera. You can clearly see streaming structures in the comet’s dust tail – that’s the bright veil-like tail making a slight graceful curve to the left in the photo. The dust tail is made of dust particles tracing the comet’s path, lit by reflected sunlight. The fainter straight tail is the ion or gas tail, pointing directly away from the sun as a result of its interaction with solar wind and the sun’s magnetic field. But where is the comet’s nucleus or core? It’s not visible, perhaps it’s shrouded in the volatiles (easily evaporated substances) surrounding it. There’s a lot of curiosity about the condition of Comet Lovejoy’s nucleus. Will it remain intact? Or will it disintegrate due to the stress of its close encounter with the sun on December 16?
Grahame also obtained this wide-angle view of the comet over the suburbs of Perth, Australia on December 21, 2011. Anyone who has stargazed in the suburbs knows how light pollution obscures the very faintest stars. That Grahame could obtain this image over Perth indicates that this comet is pretty darned bright!
Another Australian photographer, Colin Legg, photographed a lovely view of Comet Lovejoy on December 21, 2011, over the Mandurah Estuary near Perth, catching its ghostly reflection on the water. Fine streamers in the dust tail are also evident in this photo. For the photography enthusiasts curious about technical details, Colin obtained this image with a Canon 5D2 using a 73 mm focal length lens, a f/4 aperture opening, an ISO setting of 3200, and an exposure time of 12 seconds.
He also created a series of time-lapse wide-angle photos on December 21, 2011 with a 24 mm focal length lens, using several different exposure times, ISO, and aperture settings. Click the link below to see it.
Currently, the constellation Sagittarius is the backdrop for Comet Lovejoy. That will gradually change as the comet moves away from the sun.
What will Comet Lovejoy do next? Remain stable? Break apart? Stay relatively bright, or rapidly fade away? Stay tuned for future updates!
Shireen Gonzaga is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about natural history. She is also a technical editor at an astronomical observatory where she works on documentation for astronomers. Shireen has many interests and hobbies related to the natural world. She lives in Cockeysville, Maryland.